The unpredictable climate throughout the U.S. in December, both environmental and political, didn’t stop consumers from shopping at independent bookstores. Many booksellers contacted by PW reported consistent, but not exceptional, sales, led by titles that were already showing strong numbers as the season opened, including Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (SS), Grant by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press), The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur (Andrews McMeel), The Rooster Bar by John Grisham (Doubleday), A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Viking), Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Knopf), and Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo (Timbuktu Labs).
The biggest hit of the holiday season, however, was easily Obama: An Intimate Portrait: The Historic Presidency in Photographs by Pete Souza (Little, Brown). “That one took everybody by surprise,” said Tod Gross, manager of Phoenix Books in Burlington, Vt., which has four locations in the region. “We could have sold four times as many if we’d be able to source it. We got a pretty good restock a few days before Christmas and ended up selling something like 40 copies.” He noted that one result of the short supply was that the children’s version of Souza’s book, Dream Big Dreams: Photographs from Barack Obama’s Inspiring and Historic Presidency (Little, Brown), benefited, as people opted to buy it when the adult edition wasn’t available.
On the fiction side, interest in Naomi Alderman’s The Power (Little, Brown) also unexpectedly popped just before the end of the year, and the book proved difficult for some booksellers to obtain.
Gross and several other booksellers observed that book shipments were somewhat slower than normal throughout the holidays. “By the end of season we were out of maybe six of the indie bestsellers,” Gross said, citing several of the aforementioned titles. The slow shipping may have been a sign of increased overall demand.
“The number of books sold in the indie channel during the week leading up to Christmas in 2017, from December 17 to 23, was the largest it’s been since NPD BookScan started collecting this kind of data,” said Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association.
One factor in the sales improvement this year may have been a change in customers’ attitudes from 2016, when many people were consumed by politics. “Sales in November were up 2%–3% over the previous year, with December up 10.46% overall,” said Alice Byrd Hutchinson, owner of Byrd’s Books in Bethel, Conn. “Last year, people climbed into bed and ordered off Amazon because of the election. This year there was more of a sense of normalcy.”
Tom Lowenburg, owner of Octavia Books in New Orleans, concurred: “As opposed to last year’s postelection mood, it’s changed a little.” Though Lowenburg doesn’t think people are more optimistic about the political situation, this year there are more books available that address the issues than were available last Christmas. “Last year people were looking for books to help answer their questions but the material wasn’t there,” he said. “Now it’s there.”
At Women and Children First in Chicago, holiday sales were up almost 18% from last year. “Overall we saw huge growth in children’s books and book- and activism-related socks and T-shirts, though almost every category was up,” said store manager Jamie Thomas. Women and Children First was one of several bookstores that benefitted from a rise in awareness about what indie stores mean to a community. “So many shoppers told me that they were doing their holiday shopping at our store because they were grateful to have a feminist, politically active space in their community and they deeply appreciated all the programming we had this past year which supported that mission,” noted co-owner Sarah Hollenbeck.
Lynn Roberts, manager of Square Books in Oxford, Miss, also underscored the importance of people shopping more intentionally. “We’ve seen a lot of local support by our community,” she said. “I think people in general are more aware of what they have in their town. Our sales were up, probably around 5%, and we’ve seen a healthy year.”
This year’s holiday season also benefited from one more weekend than the 2016 season, which brought out some shoppers early and let others leave their shopping to the last minute. “Sales for the holiday season were up, about 5%,” said Maureen Palmer, co-owner of Redbery Books in Cable, Wis. “Sales were especially strong the weekend before Christmas, and, even though we were open only four hours on Christmas Eve, it was a really great Christmas Eve.” Palmer added that she was surprised by the strong sales, particularly since a branch of the bankrupt Book World chain in nearby Hayward, Wis., was closing and had a big sale. Customers told Palmer that they were coming to Redbery because they still preferred to shop at bricks-and-mortar bookstores.
That said, numerous booksellers also saw increased online traffic. Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo., was one. “The trend we definitely saw was many more online orders and some solid interest in our downloadable audio books,” she said.
Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, said the company put an effort into online marketing: “We plotted out tweets and posts for the whole month, especially for the times we knew we’d be busy. Our impressions and clicks were up a lot. The website saw a 25%–30% increase in business.”
Eileen McGervey, owner of One More Page Books in Arlington, Va., took to social media to promote the store. “Our #OMPReads social media program where staffers take pictures with their favorite reads has been very popular, with folks coming in looking for books we shared,” she said. “Books on our 2017 staff picks table also moved really well. Sales were up at 15% over the holidays from last year, which is great.”
Other booksellers stuck to old-school methods of promotion, including distributing regional bookseller association’s holiday catalogues. Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville, Ky., has produced its own holiday catalogue for 40 years. “It is something special we do in-house, and it always guarantees sales,” said manager Kate Weiss, who added that the inclusion of The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair (Penguin) led to 60 copies being sold. Still, overall, she said, “it never got totally crazy,” adding, “Some years people will just buy anything; there was never that kind of desperation this year, it was just a great holiday season.”
When it came to practical considerations, sometimes just staying open longer boosted sales significantly. Drury Lane Books in Grand Marais, Minn., transitioned to staying open six days per week during the holiday season, rather than four days. The result, said store manager Gwen Danfelt, was that sales were up 47% from last year’s holiday season, with a 56% increase for 2017 overall.
At Books Books in Miami, which plans to open a ninth location this year, owner Mitchell Kaplan said sales were up 10% for the chain for the season. He also anticipates having a strong January: “When it snows in New York and New England, our sales go up, as tourists come down to escape the cold.”
In aggregate the news for indie booksellers in 2017 was positive. “Despite a challenging year, we’re pleased to report that overall book sales across the network of indie bookstores once again increased over the previous year,” Teicher said. “Our gains in 2017 over 2016 were modest—about 2.6%—but we’re looking at a compound annual growth rate of approximately 5.4% over the last five years, which, when compared to the rest of bricks-and-mortar retail, is pretty good. Further, our most recent annual ABACUS survey benchmarking indie bookstore performance showed an increase in overall indie bookstore profitability.”
Teicher cited changes made by publishers as a key factor in improved profitability. “Our relationships with our publishing partners are as strong as I’ve seen them in the last 10 years,” he said.
Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Third Place Books in Seattle and board president of the ABA, echoed his confidence. “I am very optimistic about the coming year,” he said. “I continue to be inspired by the new booksellers who are opening new stores or taking over existing stores and breathing new life into them: Books are Magic in Brooklyn, Point Reyes Books in California, and Browsers Bookshop and Bricks and Mortar Books here in Washington, just to name a few. Our customers, the book lovers and soon-to-be book lovers in our communities, are finding more and more value in the experience they have in the unique environments our stores create.”